Ouarzazate and Oasis de Fint, Morocco's Hidden Movie Setting
Novinite is publishing the last of three articles about Morocco, where a group of journalists was invited to spend more than a week in November and get to know a country which is not far from Europe, looks fantastic on tourist billboards and draws millions of visitors every year, but Europeans don’t know about it as much as one would expect.
Unlike the other two, the third article is dedicated to Ouarzazate, a city and an oasis next to it where time runs differently.
None of the texts pretends to be a guidebook at all; it is just a traveller’s way to share a few thoughts. The first and second part, dedicated to Rabat and Marrakech respectively, were published earlier in December.
We sit around the fire, watching the sparks fade up in the air, with the smoke making the sea of stars above us look dimmer and more distant. A few minutes after one in the morning, this fire is the only major source of light as the electricity generator has just been switched off.
There are a lot of impressions I would like to share with Eyoub, a young man of Moroccan descent who lives here, in the area of Ouarzazate in Morocco's south, just 160 km away from where the Sahara begins. In the first minutes, however, I can’t find the right words.
Where Shadows of Berber Rulers Meet Lawrence of Arabia
Just five hours earlier we, a group of journalists, are taking a stroll around Ouarzazate City, a place of newly painted, pink-and-white houses that resembles a movie setting in the middle of a sandy terrain. To compare would actually be an understatement: Ouarzazate is about 5 km away from the world's largest film studios. Most of Atlas Studios' area is a desert, but to cinemaniacs it is not just any desert; it is where movies like Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and, more recently, Alejandro Gonz?lez I??rritu’s Babel were shot, along with several Game of Thrones episodes.
The neat and tidy city - the vicinities of which are now also a home to a huge solar power project – is just a brief stop on our way. Shining amidst the dust it looks a little artificial (for this or another reason we nearly miss the huge fortress in its east, as if it were fake). A Cinema Museum turns out appealing to fans of movies like King of Scorpions who pose for pictures everywhere, sitting on thrones, in front of gallows, around halls and corridors that make a visitor feel as though preparing for the next scene.
And yet, as the sun is going down,
centuries-old fortress Kasbah Taourirt casts a majestic shadow over one curb of the street –
the opposite one is bathed in the golden sunset light.
Ouarzazate, unlike most other places we visited, doesn’t have too much history to show off. Pinned on the doorway to the desert (and this is precisely what its name means), not sitting on any major trading route, the city hasn’t been an important economic hub up until some decades ago. Now, it is the Moroccan home of history and green energy.
It was cinema - namely the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia - that brought this forgotten place, and Ouarzazate as a whole, back to life. For many centuries it had been a strategic venue for the Pasha of Marrakech (Glaoui) to control the Saharan Caravan Route to Western Africa. Early in the 20th century, the French presumably used it and other fortresses in Ouarzazate region as a base to make inroads into Algerian and Mauritanian lands.
Staircases after staircases we have to move tightly together even though we see only a few dozen of the three hundred rooms at the Kasbah. Some of the ceiling decorations remain intact. The guide pours word after word on us, as if he were quick to recite a long poem before dusk falls; and yet when someone asks a question and the guide fends it off, I'm left with the impression he knows much more about this fortress than he would like to tell. Thinking about this, with my eyes looking up and down the rooms and staircases of the Kasbah, I realize I can’t find the group. Another guide I bump into while going downstairs points me the way; I hesitate and, after the group reappears in a few minutes, he walks past me with his own group giving me the chilliest of looks. “I told you where to go, did't I?... And you didn't listen.”
Although the rooms we visited are now empty, some of the details that remain are still a hint at the splendor that once could be seen here.
We make our way out of the Kasbah. At the exit, vendors offer small drawings representing Berber art or scenes from desert life that look a lot like souvenir images. One suggests a customer’s name might be added to a present, written in Tamazight (Berber) letters, for a small change, but we have to decline politely: there isn’t much more daylight.
The little light that remains leaves our fingers glued to the camera button for at least five minutes.
Slowly walking down a street as we find our way to the van we use to move around, past Arabic and Tamazight signs, a vague feeling appears that what remains ouf our tours will not be like the "History and Culture" marathon of the previous days which showed us much of the splendor of Imperial cities but left us exhausted in less than a week.
The first surprise comes as we reach our van and are told to take our things out of it, and then place them into two separate 4WD vehicles that will get us to our next destination. The van won’t be able to make it through the distance, we are told.
The silhouettes of bushes, hills and ridges around us are changing,
but we barely notice this in the twilight (which falls the more quickly, the closer one goes to the Equator).
What the vehicle's lights illuminate ahead of us is no road at all, judging by European (or even by rural Bulgarian, for that matter) standards. The driver, however, knows where he is going. We three who are packed in the backseats don’t really talk in this half an hour – the friction of tires against the rocky field means we might have to shout if we want to hear each other.
Suddenly, the sound of prayer breaks in; the driver is playing it on his phone.
The Hidden Place
It takes us half an hour to cross what we later find out is a dozen km distance from Ouarzazate, to discover there a place hidden at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. "Hidden" is also the word that best describes it - firstly because it suddenly comes into being in front of us as we are moving through the semidesert plain, and secondly because this is precisely what its name means.
Oasis de Fint - as we will only see in the morning - has lush green palm trees that, set against the endless horizons of rocky and sandy ground, would have looked like an oasis from old-school cartoons if it weren't for the hills around. The green landscape is rolling along a tiny river in its low-water season. It is the heart of the oasis, where water sustains farmlands giving life to lemons, almonds, orange and date trees. It is land that most of the 1200 inhabitants of the oasis's four villages, mostly Berbers, life off - a reminder that Moroccan Berbers, far from being nomads, are predominantly in agriculture.
Tiny houses could be seen scattered all around and immediately next to the greenish strip of land - in the plains or up on the hills. We are told we won’t be sleeping in houses, though. Arriving at the Bivouac des Aigles, where we are staying for the night, we expect to see tents just like what one brings when going to the mountains. Instead, we are shown our way to comfortable rooms with a bed of stone and straw and a lightbulb next to it. A Berber letter signifying “Freedom” is the first thing I see hanging on the wall after removing the piece of cloth serving as a front door.
This picture was from the morning after.
But after a quick look around I go out, hearing the voices of the others. We are sitting on the ground, waiting for dinner to begin, when an old man, who dubs himself Asis de l’oasis (“Asis of the Oasis”), comes, inviting us to see the kitchen – a regularly looking kitchen with an electric stove. Half a dozen men and women have gathered around the dishes they are preparing. We recognize the biggest as a tajin: this North African Berber dish named after the pot where it is normally cooked, is actually lamb with almonds, dates and plums with a special sauce.
Eyoub (R) is the last one to stay awake at the Bivouac, making sure every task has been dealt with properly.
Returning to the low table, meters from the fire, we feel cold, but enjoy our wine gazing the stars and talking. Eyoub passes by from time to time to check the fire and later starts to play a djembe, forming a quartet with the others sitting. We are looking at their clothes wondering if any Berber people wear such colorful garments even nowadays (the answer is “some still do”) when we realize we should move closer to the fire to listen.
Eyoub plays a few songs with the others and then comes back.
At the age of twenty-five, he shares his time between painting walls and virtually running this place. “How do you come here every day if you live in Ouarzazate?,” one of us asks when we learn he lives there. “On foot. It’s not that long. And sometimes I stay here,” he replies.
He grew up here and knows the area by heart. Maybe this is why four of us are lured into an early morning walk to a nearby hill where, he says, we can watch a beautiful sunrise. We agree to meet at five thirty, despite the clock showing it’s well before midnight already, a fact that makes all the others leave. But I decide to stay for a while and watch the shooting stars. Then I am about to join the others for a five-hour sleep when Eyoub, sitting by the fire asks me if I like it here.
Of course I do, I answer, and then he starts to wonder about a word. He tries in all languages he speaks other than Berber and Arabic, first in French and then in Spanish – he uses short Spanish phases but has no accent. “I learned it from the people in the oasis,” he tells me as I am about to leave; and I don’t really believe him until I hear him say “Thank you” in Bulgarian a few hours later. Asking where Bulgaria is, I realize I will need some time to explain to someone who only knows Western Europe (there are so many Europeans who wouldn’t be able to fill in countries’ names in an empty map of Africa!), so when he invites me for a seat I join. I explain and an uncomfortable silence follows, with both of us wondering what to say now.
This is the three-minute silence when my mind recalls everything that happened in the past few hours.
“The music you play reminded me of African blues,” I tell the boy, adding: “I like African blues” (and I really do). “I can play Ali Farka Toure,” he adds, referring to Mali’s greatest guitarist of all time – one who started his real musical career after finding a Bulgarian guitar back in the 1960s. Eyoub starts looking for Ali Farka songs in his phone; then stops to look me in the eyes and say: “You know that blues came from Africa?” At first I think this is a statement, judging by the pride in his eyes; in a few seconds I know he is genuinely curious whether I know. He can’t find Ali Farka (“the Donkey”) Toure on his phone, but shows me an unknown face. “This is Omou Sangare, she is like Ali Farka Toure, you know her?” I shake my head and ask him to play some of her songs.
Even only with the sounds of the phone, the African oasis we are in is brought to life in the small hours. The magic comes not from the African blues we are listening to (which was created hundreds and hundreds of kilometers to the south), but from the African land which inspired it.
In half an hour I fall asleep reluctantly, thinking one should just stay out and look at the stars. I have done this many times in the mountains of Bulgaria - but seen from Africa (and this is not the first time I'm noticing) stars look bigger, closer and brighter. The next thing I remember is waking up in a few hours, tired but eager to see the sunrise, with my feet moving behind Eyoub, climbing up the hill in the dark. On the hill I decide to keep myself awake to see the sunrise, which seems to be coming in just a few minutes.
We don’t really see the sunrise. There was no way we do - it is going up somewhere behind the ridges that hide the horizon from our eyes. But even the minutes of waiting and watching its rays illuminate the adjacent hills bring us joy.
Going down the hill, we arrive to see our breakfast is ready.
Some of the products are homemade (some are not), but it is the bread that disappears from the table first – we are told there is more behind the corner. There we see Berber women baking the bread smiling to us. Even nowadays clay furnaces are used by Berbers to bake their bread – a custom they say is the reason why they never have an upset stomach.
Sitting next to their furnace, they allow one of us to help them by taking the newly baked bread out and bringing it to the table. As the morning goes, sitting here at the feet of the hills looks much different to the usual Saturday routine of people looking for rest after a dynamic weekend. Here, just some kilometers away from towns and cities, time is measured differently. The weight of the world slides away.
As we are packing our things to leave, having spent a bit more than half a day here in the rural areas or Ouarzazate and barely having time to get to know the people, I once again go out of my one-night tent home just to look what is in front of me. This place is not somewhere you experience history but somewhere you escape it. Withoug losing days to reach remote places far away from urban jungle, just by arriving here you are already a Universe apart.
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